Fred Rogers was a good friend of mine for many years before he died in 2003. When he came to New York, we often had dinner together. I want to introduce him to you again today because I think Catholic parents and educators could learn something from this humble Presbyterian Minister.
Fred McFeely Rogers created, composed, produced, helped write, and hosted the preschool television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The program’s tone was gentle, reflecting Fred’s quiet demeanor and respectful attitude towards his tiny viewers. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran for almost thirty years and focused on children’s developing psyche, feelings, sense of moral and ethical reasoning, civility, and the importance of sharing. Children still love him and parents still trust him.
Fred was not a Catholic but a Presbyterian Minister who chose to minister to little children. Although he did not speak about Jesus, he managed to reveal the love of God to preschoolers without words, children who might never step inside a Church.
how do we make goodness attractive? By doing whatever we can do to bring courage to those whose lives move near our own–by treating our ‘neighbor’ at least as well as we treat ourselves and allowing that to inform everything that we produce (The World According to Mister Rogers )
From the 1950s, Rogers studied and collaborated with Margaret McFarland, a child psychologist renowned for her use of storytelling as a pedagogic tool. I think Jesus, who told stories and parables about everyday life to teach eternal truths, would approve.
He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children,* you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.
“Whoever causes one of these little ones* who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. ( Matthew 18: 1-6).
As Mister Rogers concurs:
When I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air, or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me. (The World According to Mister Rogers).
The theme song of his TV Show, Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood, is famous- “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood
A beautiful day for a neighbor
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
When I did my television interview with the famous Mister Rogers, I began with this question:
Father John Catoir: Why did you choose that opening?
Fred Rogers: When I hear words like those, I think the person speaking them cares about me. And I want them to know that I care about them and all children. I want them to feel that each one of them is special.
JC: How do you select the themes for your show?
FR: Many ideas come from the mail we receive. Who would have thought years ago that we would one day do a whole show on divorce? But children need to know that it is not their fault when their parents separate. Little children tend to think that the world revolves around them. And so consequently anything that happens to them must be because of them, as though the divorce was their fault. They think that it must be “something I did.” If a child spills the milk at breakfast and it leads to loud talking between the parents, the child thinks he or she was at fault for causing the breakup. We try to get through to them that divorce is something that only has to do with adults, not children.
JC: Your new book was entitled, “You Are Special: Neighborly Words of Wisdom from Mister Rogers“. Tell us a little about it.
FR: I’ve collected lots of quotes over the last forty years, and they all describe how I feel about the person I am with at the moment. It is one of the most glorious things you can do in life; make the person you are with feel special. Evil in the world would want us to feel as awful as we could about who we are. But Jesus wants us to look at ourselves, and our neighbor, and see the best. How wonderful it would be if we all became an advocate in life rather than an accuser.
Forgiveness is a strange thing. It can sometimes be easier to forgive our enemies than our friends. It can be hardest of all to forgive people we love. Like all of life’s important coping skills, the ability to forgive and the capacity to let go of resentments most likely take root very early in our lives (The World According to Mister Rogers).
JC: I like that. You presume there is an evil power in the world, and you know how to deal with it. You never put on a false front. Fred, is there anything else you try to do for the children?
FR: I think we have to provide them with heroes, like teachers who really believe they have a Mission, and that the only reason they are in the classroom is to help the children. I bring on Community leaders who see a local gang as nothing more than a cluster of kids trying to make it through life. I bring on policemen and firemen who take care of all of us. Heroes are important in life because we all need to look up to people. Many of the people we have on our show are unsung heroes.
JC: Thank you, Fred, for this delightful interview.
I hope Catholics will take a few tips from Mister Rogers as they learn how to touch children’s hearts with the love of God.